'Freddy's Not Dead'

A black protest leader reemerges three years after the 'massacre' at a Harlem clothing store. But why?

Morris Powell, the black activist some say was the mastermind behind the boycott that sparked the firebombing and mass murder-suicide at Freddy's Fashion Mart three years ago, has emerged at the center of a new campaign employing alleged "Nazi-type tactics" to force Fred Harari, the Jewish owner of the store, out of Harlem for good.

In fact Harari's lawyer, Robert L. Rimberg, argues in court papers that "Powell, if permitted to continue [the current protest], is setting the stage for another tragedy" at the store, which is located at 272 West 125th Street. It has been renovated and renamed Uptown Jeans.

But the Voice has learned that a secret deal is being cut between Harari and Powell, which may bring an end to the racially divisive protest.

Morris Powell: Activist has ''unfinished business'' with store owner.
Morris Powell: Activist has ''unfinished business'' with store owner.

The Reverend Al Sharpton, who apologized for calling Harari "a white interloper" during demonstrations at the height of the boycott, confirmed that Harari asked him to mediate the ongoing dispute with Powell, a street vendor who heads the Buy Black Committee at Sharpton's National Action Network. Sharpton said that he, Powell, Harari, and Rimberg met two weeks ago in the Manhattan office of attorney Michael A. Hardy, who represents Powell and Sharpton.

It was the first face-to-face meeting between Harari and Powell since the so-called "Harlem massacre." Eight people, including a gunman, died on December 8, 1995, in what Rimberg describes as "one of the worst racist attacks in New York history."

Sharpton says the two men are trying to broker an agreement in which Harari will appear at a "town hall meeting" to give his account of the tragic events, since many Harlem residents hold him partly responsible for what occurred.

"At the meeting, Morris said he felt that Freddy shouldn't just come back into the community without atoning for his past sins," says Sharpton, who added that he explained to Harari why he had used the racial code word interloper to describe him.

"I told him some of his workers had come to me complaining that he was underpaying them off the books and that they were afraid something terrible would happen with all those fire-code violations in the store," the reverend recalls. "I told him that he had a bad image in the Harlem community."

According to Sharpton, Harari "dealt forthrightly with the accusations," insisting that he no longer pays his employees off the books, and that the fire-safety violations have been corrected.

Asked about the deal with Powell, Rimberg says, "We are discussing it." But Rimberg denies Harari admitted to gouging his workers and paying their wages illegally. "He has never paid people off the books," the attorney insists.

On December 4, Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Harold Tompkins issued a temporary restraining order, barring Powell from "protesting, demonstrating, picketing, congregating or otherwise gathering" within 350 feet of Uptown Jeans and Showtime, another of Harari's stores, located at 216 West 125th Street. Now protesters chant slogans from behind police barricades set up across the street near the Apollo Theater, where striking stagehands were picketing the storied showplace this summer.

"The thing is over with now," Rimberg asserts. But Michael Hardy, Powell's attorney, says that nothing has been finalized. Powell has agreed in principle to end the boycott, pending the outcome of a legal settlement with Harari. "It is still in the process of being resolved," Hardy says.

For the past three months, Morris Powell and several other black ultranationalists have been roaming 125th Street, urging bargain seekers along the historic commercial strip to "return fire" because "Freddy's not dead."

But it wasn't until Powell and members of a group called Concerned Citizens of Harlem began picketing four days before Thanksgiving that some realized he was referring to Harari.

The businessman's store allegedly was turned into a fiery tomb by Abugunde Mulocko, a reputed member of the Black Liberation Army, who believed that Harari did not employ blacks and was involved in a scheme with the landlord of a predominantly black church to evict the Record Shack, a black-owned store next door. After local officials refused to help Sikhulu Shange, who runs the Shack, Shange turned to Sharpton and Powell.

Police say Mulocko, also known as Roland J. Smith Jr., stormed into Freddy's and shot and wounded four people, all of them white, before setting the place on fire. Seven employees died of smoke inhalation. Mulocko then allegedly turned the gun on himself.

Powell maintains that Uptown Jeans is Freddy's incarnate, and urges blacks not to shop at "that store that we have unfinished business with."

Outside the store on a breezy Saturday morning last month, Powell stuffed flyers into the shopping bags of people browsing at a discount clothing rack. One included the rap "Freddy's Not Dead."

"It's a poetic situation, you know, because everybody else is dead but Freddy," lamented Powell. He then recited, "He's still alive and kicking and the black community is taking a licking/Have you heard? Freddy's where the massacre occurred."

Robert Moore, a passerby, grabbed a flyer, perused it, and confronted the activist.

"They got black people working here!" Moore protested. "I don't get that, yo."

"This is a white-owned store!" Powell shot back.

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